November 28, 2016 Words Fail
Are words necessary?
One of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz’s Big Numbers #1 (1990), opens with a wordless eight-page sequence, culminating with some punk kid throwing a rock through a moving train window. On page nine, a sleeping passenger startles from a dream and screams, “AAA! SHIT!” Then the elderly couple seated across from her say, “I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”
Get it? They mean profanity, but Moore means language in general–does a comic book really need it? I’ve been spending my fall semester plunging into a deeper study of the comics form and am finding that some of the very best graphic novels are wordless: Lynd Wards’ Gods Man (1929), Thomas Ott’s R.I.P.: Best of 1985-2004, Renee French’s H Day (2010), Daishu Ma’s Leaf (2015). I teach creative writing fiction in our English department, so it makes my wife (and former department chair) nervous when I say words are just clutter. There are endless exceptions of course, but too often dialogue and captions in comics are visually ugly and narratively redundant. Images can do almost all of the talking.
But when I look at that Big Numbers scene now, I don’t think about comics. I think about our President-elect punk throwing his majority-losing rock through the TV screen of America’s napping leftwing voters.
America: “AAA! SHIT!”
Elderly Trump Voters: “I don’t think there’s any need to use language.”
I responded to the election by creating a political cartoon based on the Batman villain Two-Face, a caricature of myself now that I’ve disavowed all moderate political perspectives in favor of uncompromising leftwing extremism. Since I’m currently drafting a creative writing textbook on creating comics, it’s both cathartic and practical. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at comics art, analyzing the relationships between words and images, style and subject, line and concept, but it’s an entirely different thing to understand those ideas from inside the creative process.
It wasn’t until I decided my cartoon character deserved an origin story that I began to fully understand that elderly couple’s prejudice against language. I started with this wordless sequence:
I liked it fine, but it felt incomplete. Maybe it deserved some dialogue, and so I added talk balloons, but without knowing exactly what I wanted George Washington to be saying. I just liked the talk balloons as visual elements offsetting the quarters. I even made them from the same image by whiting out their centers. But I still assumed I’d have to fill them in eventually. Stan Lee hired writers at Marvel in the 60s based on how well they filled in empty talk balloons from a Fantastic Four issue, so I started writing a script to do the same. I titled it “How the Radical Right Turned Me into the Radical Left.” It looked like this when I was done:
It’s probably revealing that I like the illegible words best. The phrases double then quadruple, turning into a visual representation of meaningless noise. Which is how I feel now about political statements that fall short of absolute condemnation of Donald Trump and anyone who voted for him. “It worked” is darkly ironic–I’ve become a mirror version of the kind of Tea Party extremist I hate–but that falls short for me. All I want to hear is the uncompromising blackness of that final talk bubble.
As I watched news agency after news agency call the election for Trump, words failed me then too. The wordless version is better. It’s not only its silent self, but it also contains the scripted version, plus a range of other unwritten but evocatively present versions too. No words somehow allow for all words.
Or should I set aside my anti-word extremism and try to compromise? Would a bipartisan combination of the two work best?
Like the GOP, the word-version controls almost the entire sequence, but no words get the all-important final word. Which is also the script I’m writing for America. My next cartoon is silent too. I’ve literally put myself inside that two-faced quarter, and I will stay there until Trump and all of his rock-throwing GOP punks are gone–via resignation, impeachment, or nuclear Armageddon, I really don’t care. If you would also like to make a Two-Faced version of yourself, I’ve included step-by-step instructions at the bottom of the page.
Step 1. Watch country elect pussy-grabbing bigot for president.
Step 2. Stop shaving.
Step 3. Shave right half of face.
Step 4. Take selfie.
Step 5. Shit around with selfie in Word Paint while country plummets into moral abyss.
Step 6. Vow vengeance in 2018.